Good Things Come in Fives
Words by George Koch
Photos by Liam Doran
Well if you’re inclined to go up on the wall
It can only be fast and high
And those who don’t like the danger
Soon find something different to try
The lyrics rattled about my mind like the snowballs, ice shards and loose snow that were being kicked off by my ski edges and accelerated over a small roll before reappearing above one of the tortuously twisting couloir’s chokes and bursting apart like overripe fruit on its cliff walls. Or like a skiing helmet, were a skier’s attention to waver even for an instant. To call these critical 1,500 vertical feet of a 5,000-vertical-foot descent sporty was understatement, though terrifying, would be an exaggeration. It was certainly the most challenging run I’d undertaken in 15 years. The couloir was pretty much all crux. Longer than just about any steep lift-served descent in North America, with the lovely settled powder of the run’s three opening pitches having given way to firm chalk interspersed with ice peppered with small stones, it demanded second-by-second, foot-by-foot focus. The canyon-like couloir’s snaking course denied margin for any slides.
It was noon on the second day of what would turn into an astounding run of backcountry experiences: five consecutive days, five different mountains, five singular descents, nearly all pushing 5,000 vertical feet and – to strain the numerology – usually five people in the group. All five fell within a 20-mile-wide zone in the Swiss Alps’ very heart: the Oberalppass region, home to the little-known ski resorts of Andermatt, Sedrun and Disentis. Over my 50 years of skiing, including probably 1,000 days spent exploring the Alps, I hadn’t experienced anything like this epic sequence. It wasn’t even planned.
I’d been roaming central Switzerland with three companions – photographer Liam Doran, pro skier/photographer Sven Brunso and pro skier/journalist John Trousdale. While exploiting lift systems wherever possible, we’d been skinning and/or boot-packing for nearly a week when the five-peak string commenced. Serendipity was the key ingredient.
Peak 1: Pazolerstock – Oberalppass Between Sedrun and Andermatt
The bright red, narrow-gauge electric train ground up the steep grades from Andermatt towards the treeless Oberalppass, its cog drive sending vibrations throughout the little coach. Liam had the window down to shoot photos of the early-morning scene of blue sky, blue-gray rocks, and blue-shaded snowfields. The aesthetics were lost on an elderly Swiss gentleman being pummelled by the icy draft who was too proud or pedantic to move upwind of Liam. The two kept eying each other balefully and I half-expected them to begin snorting and pawing the ground.
Our planned descent from the 9,300-foot Rossbodenstock sat beyond the train’s huge windows like a diorama. The mountain’s sweeping north face had to be two miles wide and we could pick out innumerable lines down its bowls, roll-overs, broad aprons and shorter rock-lined shots. Lying in plain sight makes this a popular tour, yet there was still room. To the railway’s other side lay the lifts of Andermatt’s Naetschen section, with its miles of easy piste skiing and sun-drenched slopes of spring corn.
The Matterhorn-Gotthard Railway connects Andermatt on the pass’s west side with Sedrun on the east side and Disentis a few miles farther along. Starting this season, all three are on the same lift pass, and the train ride is free. For this reason, as well as the fact that the train was lifting us 2,000 vertical feet to the start of our tour, the train is essentially part of the lift system. In addition to the standard Disentis-Sedrun-Andermatt lift pass, something called the Surselva pass adds a further four ski areas lying east of Disentis. Remarkably, a six-day pass to this huge region averages out to just $55 per day.
Andermatt’s and Sedrun’s lifts are separated by only a few miles that could be bridged with two new lifts – exactly what’s being planned. Andermatt is part-way through a $1.8 billion real-estate-driven redevelopment, headed by Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris, that may be unprecedented in staid, slow-moving Switzerland. Sawiris has already built the 5-star Chedi hotel, an eye-popping edifice whose full comprehension requires personal observation, as well as luxury condos and a high-speed chairlift on Andermatt’s main peak. The connection with Sedrun is next, with the first connecting lift now under construction.
The touring terrain on the railway’s south side will remain untouched, however, for which we were thankful as we exited the train at a tiny platform beside a mountain hut/restaurant and Sedrun’s westernmost lift, slapped on our skins and began the three-hour ascent to the Rossbodenstock. The skin track was an unmistakeable twin-trail and the full gamut of European tourers were on the promenade. Bearded hipsters exuding cool as they snowshoed up to a snowboarding kicker film shoot. Muscular young Germans in bright action suits going determinedly about their serious tasks. Wizened 80-ish Swiss couples whose faded attire attested that they still had 3,000 vertical feet of uphill in them. Nervous newbies trudging awkwardly, every accouterment flapping goofily.
Cresting a large ridge, my jaw dropped at the immensity of the potential touring terrain unrelated to our planned descent. A long bowl of sun-drenched corn snow dropped away and rolled over to who knew what. Vast snowfields rose on the opposite side, interrupted by cliffs pierced by a few sketchy routes. To the south gleamed the rolling, rippling flanks of a north-facing glacier. It never fails to amaze me how the Alps, a small mountain range set in the heart of an allegedly over-developed continent of 350 million people, still hold wild terrain representing lifetimes of exploration.
Up on the peak, it became clear we’d still find untracked or barely tracked sections even on our heavily traveled route. “It’s always great to be out exploring,” commented Sven after the first of the run’s many pitches. “You could do this thing 20 times and ski it a different way each time. In North America, every line would have a separate name.” Meanwhile, John was becoming reacquainted with the ease of access one routinely finds in the Alps. “We ride train. We look. We skin. We ski,” he said with his usual wry smile.
North-facing for 80 percent of its vertical, the last pitch above Andermatt swung westward and was nice corn snow in mid-afternoon sun. Shouldering our skis, we strolled into a village of narrow cobblestone streets and ancient timber, stone and stuccoed buildings. Andermatt was so well-preserved it seemed almost criminal not to be dressed in 16th century folk costumes.
Perched high in Switzerland’s topographical centre, where four important river valleys begin, and astride one of Europe’s main historical north-south trade and travel routes – which today run beneath the mountains as railway and highway tunnels – Andermatt grew wealthy hundreds of years ago. Because it also became central to the country’s national defense, the 20th century skiing boom bypassed the town. Andermatt’s underdevelopment is its charm. The village lacks true mass-market tourism and the mountain’s sparse lifts have kept the focus on off-piste skiing. One can hope that today’s modernization doesn’t undermine the essential Andermatt.
“Underdevelopment” came back to mind as Liam and I jostled into our tiny room in the Hotel Schweizerhof, the ancient fixtures, narrow beds and RV-sized shower stall seemingly made for a “Mr. Bean” sketch. But the staff were very friendly, the old Persian carpeting and oiled wood of the lobby lent a certain “Grand Budapest Hotel” aura, and the juicy steaks and fried potatoes at dinner had me thinking I was back in Montana. Plus the Hotel Schweizerhof sits only five minutes’ walk from the train station and the main cable car.
Peak 2: Leidtal – Andermatt Backcountry
Early the next morning we were scarfing what we could assemble from the meagre breakfast buffet before shooting out the door for the cable car. We had booked a mountain guide and were assigned Ossy Tschuemperlin, a veteran with a ready smile and twinkle in his eye. But would Ossy have the right attitude?
“I was wondering if we should try ‘Hans im Glueck’,” I ventured in the cable car lineup. “It was lovely settled powder when I did it years ago.”
“It’s a great run!” Ossy agreed. “But with this busy weekend, it will have many tracks. Myself, I prefer untracked slopes. I know a place that’s even steeper and hardly gets skied. But we have to walk uphill first. Tell me, have you guys done some ski-touring?” I smirked as Sven, who routinely climbs 4,000 vertical feet per day for 30 consecutive days, winced.
Andermatt’s Gemsstock peak is a largely freestanding giant scaled by a village-to-peak aerial tram rising 5,000 vertical feet. The ride provided a heli-like view of one of the mountain’s four large alpine cirques, which are defined by ridges that radiate from the tram’s peak terminal like starfish arms. The underlying cirque held a handful of groomed runs and some avy-controlled off-piste. Nearly all the rest of the Gemsstock’s terrain is backcountry. Its sheer scale and complexity are hard to put into words.
Behind one of the starfish arms lie two further terrain features that may be unique in the Alps. Each begins with parallel finger-like couloirs dropping into a broad ovular bowl benching out atop cliffs. A long curving couloir shooting 1,500 vertical feet to valley bottom provides the only exit. Viewed from Andermatt’s easy side, one of these features resembles an upside-down giraffe. The Giraffe is legendary among European freeride skiers. To skier’s right lies a much lesser-known near-carbon-copy, with a gnarlier exposed ingress and a steeper and narrower exit couloir. That’s Hans im Glueck – or “Hans in Luck”.
Now Ossy was claiming to know a third such descent. From the top terminal we hacked down death-cookie-strewn upper slopes of Unternalp, a common itinerary for entry-level guided groups. Poking this way and that, Ossy found shaded slopes that still held old pow, before entering a dense fog bank. “Now we skin up,” Ossy declared. The following 40 minutes were spent in a featureless, soundless world like a convoy of ships in the English Channel. We burst into brilliant light atop the ridge.
“This is one of my truly special runs,” said Ossy, “The Leidtal.” Translation: Valley of Suffering. Staring down the rocky entrance veering to a mandatory traverse over cliffs, I could only hope the name had been chosen ironically. Entrance accomplished, exhilaration climbing, we ripped successive thousand-vertical-foot sparkling pitches of unmarred boot-top-to-knee-deep. A week since the last snowfall, we’d been preceded by just a handful of other skiers. Ossy then led us down an untracked pitch ending over the valley’s terminal cliffs. We skinned back out and across to the exit couloir’s convex hourglass entrance.
It was while sidestepping down the first narrow choke that those lyrics from Mark Knopfler’s “All the Road Running” entered my head. Inspired by my younger compadres, I would crisply hop-turn the close to 50-degree skiable chalky pitches only to arrive at the next choke feeling a tad old for this kind of thing. And yet, standing on my own personal knife-edge, I felt wildly, gloriously alive.
This is my fife
This is my drum
So you never will hear me complain
After four chokes the couloir’s gentling to the low 40-degree range made it feel like an intermediate run and we all opened up to ripping, wall-to-wall turns, accelerating further on the broad fan leading to valley bottom and the 20-minute skate-and-pole exit for Andermatt.
Although we’d met him only that morning, we all felt sad parting with Ossy for he was one of the nicest and keenest-skiing mountain guides we’d ever met. The hotel scene was a mad scramble of strewn gear, showering in the hallway bathrooms and dragging baggage to the train. This time we continued down the east side of the Oberalppass past Sedrun to Disentis. We were met by Jan Pfister, an old buddy from ski-bumming days in Austria, today the proud owner of Lodge Sax, a small three-star hotel near Disentis’ main cable car.
Peak 3: Tgom – Disentis Backcountry
“Have you guys been ski touring before?” inquired young Donatello Bischof, a local mountain guide-in-training. Amusing echoes of Ossy. We piled into Jan’s ancient, matte-green German army-surplus van and clattered a few miles up the road, to an aging building with cables rising to one side.
“This small lift belongs to the electric company for shuttling workers to the hydro dam in the mountains,” explained Donat. A donation of 15 Swiss francs per person gave us a ride up, piloted by a jovial Swiss man as gnarled and craggy as the ancient firs beneath us. He told Donat in his Swiss-German dialect that he was in his late 70s and had put the first post-snowfall powder tracks down the route we’d be touring today – and had soloed it. A kindred spirit.
There’ll be a rider
And there’ll be a wall
As long as the dreamer remains
The tour led along a ridge of alternating benches, broad slopes and rocky shots easier to ascend in ski boots. Reaching height after height revealed yet another slope to climb. “Normally we would tour right onto Piz Maler,” called back Donat from the lead. “But right now, to find great powder we must ski northeast exposures. Most of the peak routes are northwest or west-facing. So we’ll ski from the next summit.”
The entry led in a broad spiral around the sub-peak, the slick yet still-breakable sun-crust demonstrating Donat’s point. Rounding a ridge, we stared into an untracked bowl. One at a time we dropped over the edge and instantly crust and slab gave way to billowy, thigh-deep blower. Pure softness underfoot and a gradient creating sensations more like flying than skiing, a downhill plummet checked by the barest of turning effort and a non-stop conveyor-feed of snow billowing up our chests.
Pitch followed pitch until Donat veered left around a flank. Skins were slapped on once more and this time it was a pure grunt of switchbacks on a slope pushing 40 degrees. The half hour’s effort provided a repeat of the previous run’s delights. Continuing downward, open slopes gave way to tortuous willows that threatened to grab tips and rip out knees. A hiking trail led us to Sedrun.
That evening’s multi-course dinner in Lodge Sax went down especially well as we noticed the first wisps of snow falling during the appetizer, intensifying into fat flakes obscuring the street lamps during the main course, and beginning to accumulate on the ground over dessert.
Peak 4: Val Acletta – Disentis Backcountry
We vibrated with anticipation as we poled through fresh snow across the meadow from Lodge Sax for an 8:15 am rendezvous with Donat. The ride in Disentis’s gleaming new cable car was followed by two chairlifts and a T-bar, lifting us 5,200 vertical feet. Disentis really is all about backcountry. Its handful of marked runs are flanked by three instant-access off-piste valleys, two further valleys of easy-access touring, plus one of the Alps’ premier day-tours: Staldenfirn. Requiring two skin ascents plus a fixed-ladder climb, Staldenfirn drops over 8,000 epic north-facing vertical feet into a separate region of Switzerland.
The swirling snow and fog meant we wouldn’t be going very far today. Our first run was laying blind first tracks down a groomer blanketed in 20 cm of fresh. Why not? Later on it would be churned into bump-strewn ice. As the light improved slightly, we carefully nosed our way down some of Disentis’ nearer-lying off-piste, Val Pintga and Val Segnas. Both would count as giant, premier descents in North America. We farmed the rippling, rolling terrain for northerly pockets to escape the widespread powder-over-suncrust and find powder-over-powder. Not quite like the day before, but still fruitful and rewarding.
The giant vertical, quick exits to the cablecar and absence of people meant we’d racked up over 20,000 vertical feet by the time we walked snow-covered into the Lai Alv hut for a late lunch of wild venison stew over pasta, with red wine. The weather remained burly, so the crew bailed for an early sauna and beers. Donat and I remained, pondering the topo map. “Hey, we could tour to the ladder, ski down the backside glacier, tour to a notch and lower ourselves back to this side by rope,” Donat chirped. I pointed out that the straps of the ski poles we could barely see outside the window were standing out straight in the gale. “Or,” Donat offered, “We could ride the T-bar and do an easy tour to Val Acletta. That’s still over a vertical mile of skiing.” Deal.
Wind gusts alternately pushed us uphill and stopped us dead on the ascent. The gale prevented folding our skins so we simply jammed them into our packs. The slopes of Val Acletta rolled into the murk, occasional breaks providing glimpses of its broad vastness and the main valley of the upper Rhine River below Disentis. Val Acletta’s upper slopes were a mix of wind-scoured shoulders and blown-in powder in the depressions. Lower down the intense light of mid-March had warmed the new snow even through the clouds.
“Hey Donat, check out that shoulder way out to the left,” I blurted out. “That looks like corn snow.”
Busting through a zone of chickenheads and slop rewarded us with an unmarred shoulder dropping at a nice 35 degrees to the exit trail. We began arcing fast turns on that unique skiing surface that has always eluded easy description: soft yet firm, moist yet fast, carvy yet easy. Even the sound of corn snow is unique: it slurps, yet sounds crisp. Corn snow is full of contradictions – except the pure fun it brings. Finding powder and corn snow on the same day is an uncommon pleasure. Today, Donat and I had it in the same run.
Peak 5: Piz Pazola – Near Lukmanierpass
Are there dishes you avoid ordering in a restaurant because, hey, you can have that anytime, so then you end up never actually eating it? Fondue is like that for me. So when Jan’s sons Hugo and Axel yelled “Fondue!!!!!” after their lovely mom, Annika, asked them what we should order, my 15-year streak of avoidance ended. Jan’s family and my crew were crammed around a hand-carved table in the restaurant Stiva Grischuna, one of Disentis’ oldest surviving buildings. Not that 1805 is old in Switzerland, only that Disentis is relatively youthful owing to a nasty dispute back in the days of Napoleon, when the doughty Swiss farmers slaughtered the garrison of French troops and a vengeful Napoleon burnt the village to the ground.
As everyone poked and prodded the succulent meats in the bubbling pots, Jan announced, “George, tomorrow I want to take the family onto our ‘hausberg’ – the mountain where the local people go to get away from the crowds.” Fifteen-year-old Hugo’s eyes glowed, while 10-year-old Axel was disconsolate. “I hate walking uphill,” he mumbled. “Don’t make me go.”
The next morning the five of us jammed our skis and touring gear into Jan’s van, checked that water bottles and sandwiches were in everyone’s day-packs, and clattered a few very winding miles towards the Lukmanierpass. Here was the Switzerland of dreams and legends: precipitous wooded slopes alternating with rolling meadows, rocky looming peaks and tiny, ancient villages perched at the noses of knife-edged ridgelines stacked in perspective, each one fading slightly in the sharp yet curiously honeyed light that always strikes me when I return to Disentis – an almost Mediterranean quality. Jan took the switchbacks like a man possessed by the urge to make everyone hurl.
The east-facing hillsides were largely bare and the grass green above the tiny village of Mutschengia, where we sorted gear and skinned up. Just a ribbon of snow remained for an up-track and we ascended in various combinations of t-shirts and bare skin. It was pleasant touring: a marked route, no hazards, lovely scenery. Hugo and Jan were virtually running uphill while Annika and I helped Axel on the steeper pitches by walking just below the skin track and pushing him gently by the small of his back. A stiff wind hit us as we broke through the trees, and after another half hour, we huddled for a quick lunch break behind a large snowdrift against the stone wall of a small shuttered hut.
The encrusted wind-packed switchbacks up the steep shoulder above the hut drove thoughts of powder out of our minds. My crew had opted out of today’s journey owing to the less-than-extreme nature of the terrain – but with a night of wind transport following yesterday’s snowfall, and children in the group, flat(tish) was what we needed.
With the new wind slab drumming under our feet, we took great care on the break-over from ridgeline to alpine bowl. Nervousness and resignation melted away as we found the leeward side blanketed in boot-top, late-season powder. A lovely 2,500 vertical feet of north-facing bowl, rolling shoulder, and broad snowfield awaited us. Cries of joy rang out from Annika, having mastered her first big tour and now being rewarded with powder. Hugo, at that age when it’s uncool to seem too enthusiastic, smiled and nodded his approval. Axel forgot the unbearable torment of walking uphill and grinned with the pure joy of childhood. Jan beamed, the proud papa getting his whole family out into the powder on the village Haus berg. And I, I felt singularly lucky to be given this golden day with this marvelous family. It was an utterly relaxing denouement to my five-mountain run.